Change is hard to overlook when it comes to Myanmar. The former pariah state has become a symbol for democratization – a process that started with a student movement over 25 years ago.
Witnesses speak of a milestone, a turning point or even a crisis when referring to the popular 1988 uprising in Burma, today more commonly referred to as Myanmar. The military took over power in a coup, putting an end to seven months of mass protests. A general strike, organized for August 8, 1988, paralyzed the country. Today, the date (8.8.88) symbolizes the uprising. For many, the four eights have a near magical meaning. Those seven months have had a long-lasting impact on the country.
Burmese author Ma Thida said: "Without 1988, the people would have never realized how much potential collective political action can have. They realized that with the power of the powerless, they could attain victory." Journalist Thiha Saw says there is a close connection between today's reforms and what happened in 1988.
To find this connection, I travelled to Myanmar in May this year and met with former demonstrators, political activists, members of the then ruling party, students journalists and artists. Two things were evident from the beginning: For one, the impact the events of 1988 have had on the country's current political opening process, and second, the marks 1988 has left in the lives of many.
On one of the first days, I travel to a monastery in Thingangyun, a township of Yangon, a city of more than six million people. I want to meet a monk who during the time of the uprising protested against the military dictatorship. Instead of meeting him, I come across an unusual kind of marriage ceremony, to which I am then suddenly invited.
Because it's almost impossible for me to refuse the polite invitation, a group of guests accompany me to a room. A young man brings two different curries, northern-style chapati bread, and two dark red scoops of ice cream which quickly melt in the heat. In the corner of the room, a statue of Buddha sits and smiles. He is surrounded by a blinking wreath of colorful lights.
The bride and groom approach me at the table. At first, I am surprised by the age of the groom, who appears to be around 40. The bride looks younger. I thank them for having me. Because we speak no common language, communicating is difficult. Then the bride and groom turn to their other guests.
The price of freedom
A young man sits next to me at the table. He speaks English and works at "88 Generation," a civil society organizations founded by students leading the uprising of 1988. He explains: the groom is a former political prisoner and was only recently released from jail, where he had been for a better part of the time between 1988 and now. The young man shows me a wedding invitation. On the front of it is a picture of a house. On the back, you can see the walls of a prison. He explains: "In Burnese, to marry means ein htaung, which literally means 'to establish a household." But the word htaung also means jail. It is a play on words."
Leaving the party, I take one last picture of the bride and groom. They have serious expressions on their faces, stern even - traces of the price paid by some of the demonstrators of 1988. For ideals and hopes, many people have been forced to forego having families.
During my trip to Myanmar, I meet a further former political prisoners who just recently got married. I ask them if the price they paid for participating in the student movement was too high. Most don't respond to the question. Only author Ma Thida, who was also in jail for a number of years, answers: "I never regretted my personal decision. I know that the authoritarian regime would never have even thought about introducing reforms had there not been people like us who put everything on the line. Everything we went through was necessary."